School Shootings: A Nation in Crisis


Last year, the new principal of a D.C. public school was showing me around the facility. We looked in on the gym, the auditorium, and, of course, the classrooms. Pausing there, he explained how the doors and windows are reinforced and what measures the school has put into place for “lockdown.” This was a word that I had never heard until Columbine, and certainly these procedures were not routine when I was a child. Now they were being explained to me as if they were as much a part of the school routine as recess.

As the nation mourns, once again, a mass shooting in which children were the targets—this time, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—everyone is asking, Why? Our politicians routinely say that this is the result of faults in our mental health system, and this time, they are also pointing the finger at the FBI. The suspect in this case had many red flags, and he had been offered help and brought to the attention of the authorities as a potential loose cannon. Nikolas Cruz himself said he wanted to be “a professional school shooter.”

But a loose cannon can’t do much if he doesn’t have the means to get his hands on the cannon itself. This is the core of the debate. Our intelligence agencies and mental health facilities are not much worse than those of other developed nations (and in many instances they are better), but we are the only nation where mass shootings happen, and happen often. In this case, consider the following: Despite all the unofficial red flags, tips to law enforcement, and help that was offered, “in February 2017, Cruz was able to legally purchase an AR-15-style assault rifle from a local gun shop. With no criminal record or anything else in his past that would raise an official red flag, he sailed through a background check.”

At this point, our children are all at risk. “It’s hard to imagine a worse distinction for a country to hold. A recent study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the United States has become “’the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.’”

Besides lagging behind in reducing infant mortality and automobile deaths, “The United States suffers from an epidemic of shooting deaths, which are nearly nonexistent elsewhere. The gun homicide rate in this country is 49 times higher than in other rich countries, according to the Health Affairs study.”

The thing that makes all the difference is that Americans have easy access to guns:  “American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.”

I thought, along with many others, that the mass shooting of first graders at Sandy Hook in 2012 would bring change. I remember speaking to a wise man in his 80s, a frequent adviser to political campaigns, just after this tragedy. He recalled that after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932, Congress acted immediately to make kidnapping a federal crime. But he sadly predicted that nothing much would happen in response to Sandy Hook. I was shocked, but he explained that there were no powerful forces opposing laws that would limit access to firearms then; and, crucially, Congress was not dysfunctional, divided, and stubbornly split along party lines.

He was right. And “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.’”

Trying to pin this on the mentally ill is a distraction and a cop-out. Furthermore, “In Cruz’s case, in fact, the existing system worked: He got professional help. School administrators knew he could pose a threat.” While many of the shooters have emotional problems or are mentally ill, not all shows warning signs. The Las Vegas gunman is an example of someone who did not show up on the radar or appear troubled. And while killing dozens of people can itself be called a sign of mental illness, the percentage of people with psychiatric disorders who are dangerous to others is very small. A 2015 study estimated that only 4 percent of American gun deaths could be attributed to mental health issues. These people are much more likely to be dangerous to themselves than to others.

Opportunity is a crucial factor when it comes to violent crimes. While some of these slaughters are planned, many gun deaths are not. In fact, accidents and suicides contribute to a great many of them. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that if a gun is in the house, the chances for not only homicide, but also suicide increase dramatically.

Start the conversation